Pols Are Salivating Over Asian Americans

When the 2000 U.S. Census showed that America's minority population had soared over the past decade, Democrats could hardly contain their glee. Minorities strongly favored Al Gore over George W. Bush in the 2000 election--by 10 to 1 among African Americans--so this demographic trend seemed to favor Democrats.

But Republicans aren't exactly despairing, either. They've got their sights on Asian and Pacific Americans (APAs), who are now the third-largest minority and are growing in numbers and concentration in key areas. These 12 million Asian Americans are teetering between the two parties, and GOP leaders believe the right mix of policy and politics just might sway them toward the Republicans.

Granted, Asian Americans are not poised to wield as much political clout as Latinos, who outnumber them by 3 to 1. But more Asians are spreading out beyond Hawaii, California, and New York. In nearly 100 congressional districts, Asians now make up at least 5% of the population, so in tight races, their votes could be decisive. "If you think of the Hispanic vote as a tsunami, the Asian vote is like a tornado," says Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. "In certain districts, it could swoop down and make a difference."

Asians Americans do not vote as a bloc, as African Americans, for instance, tend to do. APAs are generally among the most recent immigrants, speak different languages, practice different religions, and hail from different countries--some of which have long been enemies. Japanese and South Asians, for example, skew to the Democrats, while Koreans and Vietnamese tend to be more Republican.

Still, both Democrats and Republicans see an opening. The GOP wants to appeal to Asians' dedication to family and to their entrepreneurial instincts. Democrats insist their championing of the civil rights movement and hate-crimes legislation makes them a natural ally. Former Delaware Lieutenant Governor S.B. Woo has even launched the 80-20 Initiative, which aims to prod Asians to deliver at least 80% of their votes to a particular party or candidate. Democrat Woo became an independent to emphasize that the Asian American vote is up for grabs.

Because two-thirds of Asian Americans are foreign-born, immigration policy is a critical issue for them. This has traditionally played in the Democrats' favor; in California, for example, Vietnamese Americans started crossover voting for Democrats after GOP Governor Pete Wilson promoted policies that many deemed anti-immigrant.

But President Bush aims to lure back such Asian Democrats with a more positive approach to immigration. The President's appointment of Elaine L. Chao as Labor Secretary and Norman Y. Mineta as Transportation Secretary could also help curry favor. "There was an appreciation that he didn't pander to the Asian American community but chose these people because they were the best-qualified," says Republican Matt Fong, a former California state treasurer.

Certainly, Bush could stand to improve his showing with APA voters. While Asians have favored Republicans in Presidential elections, last year they cast their ballots for former Vice-President Gore over Bush by 55% to 41%. That switch occurred despite the 1996 campaign-finance scandal and the Wen Ho Lee case during the Clinton Administration. But the Republican reaction to both scandals didn't make the GOP a savior to Asian Americans, either. "You had congressional Republicans beating the drums, saying the White House was selling out the country to communist China. Asian Americans shot to prominence [in the news], but in the worst possible way," says Frank H. Wu, a Howard University law professor.

TAKING THE STAGE? Asian Americans are also running for office in greater numbers. Two decades ago, only a few hundred held public office, largely in Hawaii and on the West Coast. Today, there are more than 2,200 in 33 states--and last November, Washington elected Democrat Gary Locke as its governor, making him the nation's highest-ranking Asian American elected official. And Asian Americans loyally support members of their group even when they run in a different state. S.B. Woo estimates that when he ran for office in Delaware, 70% of his campaign funds came from Asian Americans in California, New York, and Texas.

Some activists believe their community will begin exerting much greater political influence as more foreign-born Asians become citizens and register to vote. They could be particularly influential in California, where they're about 12% of the population. "We've never been so diverse," says Don T. Nakanishi, director of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center. "At the same time, because of the challenges all Asians face in terms of discrimination, we've never been so united." That's one reason this emerging minority could be moving to the front of the political stage.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

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